He played for two national championship teams at Nebraska. He was the leader on the Carolina Panthers’ 2003 Super Bowl squad. Everywhere Mike Minter goes, his team wins. He expects the trend to continue in his first head coaching job at Campbell University.
Story by Billy Ligget | Photos by Bennett Scarborough
Right away, Mike Minter knew his foot was broken.
With just over a quarter remaining in the biggest football game of his life, and with his Carolina Panthers trailing a New England Patriots team looking to start a dynasty, the Panthers’ safety hit tight end Daniel Graham — who outsized Minter by 5 inches and 60 pounds — with everything he had six yards from the end zone to prevent a score.
The collision was violent. But it was the moment before impact — Minter planting his foot into the artificial turf at Houston’s Reliant Stadium — when the pain hit.
“I felt a pop,” Minter recalls nine years later. “When you’re playing and the adrenaline is flowing in a game like that, you don’t feel the pain. When the play’s over? Ha … it was throbbing. Go back and watch it again, and you can see me hobbling around after every play.
“It was pretty bad.”
When sharing the legend of Mike Minter — the Carolina Panthers’ all-time leader in tackles, fumble recoveries and defensive touchdowns — it’s paramount to mention his performance in Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004. Six of his career-high 18 tackles in that game came after the broken foot, and his performance helped the Panthers nearly pull off one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history (the Patriots won on a last-second field goal).
Minter remembers telling the trainers to simply tie his shoe tighter after the break. He even refused painkillers, relying instead on that adrenaline to get him through.
Passion. Grit. Heart. Leadership. These are but a few of the adjectives used to describe not only his career-defining game, but the entirety of Mike Minter’s nine-year NFL career.
And those words found their way to Buies Creek on Nov. 27, the day Minter was named head coach of Campbell University’s football program.
“Mike’s spirit, passion and will to win were evident to me from our very first conversation,” Campbell Athletic Director Bob Roller beamed before a packed room on the day of the announcement.
“I am convinced that Campbell University and Camel football is about to experience a transformational change.”
‘RUN THROUGH A WALL FOR THE MAN …’
It’s early February … almost nine years to the day of his Super Bowl experience — and nearly three months since being tabbed to turn around Campbell’s struggling football program. Minter is still settling into his somewhat bare office that looks out over the under-renovation Barker-Lane Stadium.
It’s the day after Super Bowl XLVII — a nail-biter between the 49ers and Ravens much like the one he played in — and Minter is asked what he remembers most about playing on the ultimate stage. His answer has nothing to do with a broken foot.
“The disappointment that we didn’t get it done,” Minter says, his smile giving way to clenched teeth. “You have fond memories of preparation, all the games that led to it, running out of the tunnel and other things like that. But when I look back, it’s always that field goal at the end of the game that beat us. The first thing that comes to your mind after that is you were so close, and you didn’t get it done.”
Minter “got it done” twice as a safety and linebacker at the University of Nebraska, which won two national championships in the mid-90s during his time there. And he hopes his time at Campbell — his first gig as head coach on the collegiate level — leads to unchartered territory for a program that returned to football only five years ago.
Namely, Minter wants wins. And a Pioneer League title. And a shot at the FCS playoffs.
“The only way to grade my time here will be by wins and losses,” he says. “That’s how I grade myself. I want Campbell in Year 1 to have a winning record and compete for a league title. I don’t want us to be a laughing stock … I want teams to fear us.”
Getting the right coaches and players in will go a long way toward winning, Minter says. He also wants players who will raise the team GPA and players willing to pitch in and help their community (something else that’s always brought up when people speak of Minter’s time with the Panthers).
He takes over a Campbell program coming off its worst season since returning to football in 2008. A year after its first winning record, a 6-5 campaign under coach Dale Steele, the Camels dropped to 1-10 in 2012 and 0-8 in league play.
In three months, Minter has molded a coaching staff and in February announced his first signing class, a class that got the attention of some in the state for Minter’s ability to land big names despite Campbell’s status as a non-scholarship football program.
“We’ve definitely hit the ground running,” says Minter, who left Liberty University as an assistant under Turner Gill to come to Campbell. “I wasn’t coming into this job blindly, by any means. I watched what Coach Gill had to go through at Liberty, and I’ve talked a lot with him about what it takes to start off right with a program.”
The first thing Minter did with the players left over from that 1-10 squad was sit down with every single one of them … more than 90 students in all. That task took weeks, but Minter calls the meetings “fun,” and says it was necessary to move forward.
“I got to look into their eyes, and they looked back at mine. I hope they saw the kind of coach I’m going to be,” he says. “These guys want direction. They want energy. They want to be taught.”
One thing that surprised Minter about his team was its closeness.
“Everyone said this football team was a family,” he adds. “It’s a great family atmosphere around here. You don’t normally get that coming off a 1-10 season. You normally see bickering and fighting. So I don’t think I really have to focus on building ‘family’ here … we already have it.”
As Minter stated in his press conference back in November, he knows a thing or two about what it takes to rise to the top after a dreadful season. On his first day on the job, Minter recalled the Panthers’ 1-15 season in 2001, a season when the team lost 15 in a row after an opening day win. The following season, under new head coach John Fox (now head coach of the Denver Broncos), the Panthers improved to 7-9; and in 2003 went 11-5 and stormed through the playoffs in January 2004 to earn the franchise’s only Super Bowl berth.
From 1-15 to NFC champs in two seasons … it’s an experience Minter can point to when he’s tasked with proving to a recruit that Campbell can turn its program around and do it quickly.
“At the end of the day, that’s what life is all about … learning from your experiences and sharing those experiences so others can relate,” Minter says. “It’s one thing to come to Campbell and say I’ll help you get from 1-10 to a league championship. It’s another thing to be able to tell them I was in the same boat; and yes, we made it to the Super Bowl. You get more credibility when you’ve walked the walk.”
It’s likely that credibility played a big part in Campbell’s 16-man signing class, which included two highly touted quarterbacks — Middle Creek High School’s David Salmon and Brian Hudson, a transfer from Liberty who started two games for the Flames in 2012.
Salmon, who threw for 3,303 passing yards and a school-record 36 touchdowns as a senior for Middle Creek (located in Apex) and was named his conference’s Player of the Year in 2012, said he was considering Campbell even before Minter’s hire; but he was sold after just his first phone conversation with the coach.
“Just on the phone, he brings an energy that just makes you want to go run through a wall for the man,” says Salmon, whose father was a punter at N.C. State and played professionally for the Minnesota Vikings. “His fire, energy and love for the game were something I wanted to be a part of. He really wants to turn the program around, and I’m excited to be a part of starting a new era of Campbell football.”
Minter, who himself was highly recruited coming out of high school in Oklahoma in the early ’90s, says his playing experience means a lot to recruits and their parents.
“It means a lot to them that I’ve been there … that I was on two national championship teams and that I played on Sunday,” Minter says. “More importantly, they see my vision of where this program can go, regardless of where we’re at or where we’ve been. I don’t make any bones about it … I want to coach these kids for the next level. I want guys drafted. I want them striving for the next level. When I took over the head coaching job at [First Assembly Christian Academy in Concord], we went from having no guys recruited to 12. We’re going to get it done.”
‘IN AWE OF THE TREES’
Mike Minter was in the third grade the first time he put on shoulder pads and a helmet.
“I just knew,” he says, recalling the moment. “It’s not a feeling I can describe, but I knew I was at home. I knew I was going to love this game.”
By the time he hit high school in Lawton, Okla., Minter’s athletic gifts were apparent. In football, he twice led Lawton to the second round of the playoffs as a running back; and in his senior year in 1991, he led the state of Oklahoma with 1,589 yards rushing and 21 touchdowns. In basketball, he averaged 21 points per game as a guard.
All that, and he made the National Honor Society.
In 1992, Minter was one of three Oklahoma recruits to sign with the University of Nebraska and legendary head coach Tom Osborne. Despite just about everybody else in the state bleeding Sooner crimson, Minter had eyed Nebraska ever since watching Osborne’s bunch play the classic 1984 Orange Bowl, where the unbeaten Huskers lost to Miami, 31-30. After that game, Minter would spend the next eight years learning all he could about Nebraska and Coach Osborne.
“Coach Osborne is the greatest man I know, hands down,” Minter says. “The thing he had … he had a personal touch with every single player. He genuinely cared for them. And it was more than just football … he cared about their grades, their lives. He just understood how to be real with everybody, and those things are what I definitely take from him.”
Minter said Osborne also taught his team to be physical. At 5-10, 190 pounds, Minter was smaller than the prototypical safety/linebacker for a big-time college football program. But under Osborne, Minter was a fierce hitter and ball hawk who racked up several “player-of-the-week” and all-conference awards, especially during his senior year in 1996.
Minter was a sophomore and tore his ACL during Nebraska’s national title run in 1994 and started every game during its repeat title year in 1995. In his senior year, Nebraska went 11-2 and won the Orange Bowl. Those teams saw big names like Heisman Trophy candidate Tommy Frazier and NFL stars Ahman Green, Grant Wistrom, Chris Dishman, Jason Peter, Zach Wiegert and Lawrence Phillips.
“A lot of us went on to play in the NFL,” Minter says. “It was fun. We were just dominant. We walked onto that field, and we knew we were going to beat you. And they knew it, too.”
Minter says he started thinking about the NFL after watching some of the Nebraska upperclassmen get drafted during his freshman and sophomore years … players he thought privately he was better than. Minter’s call to the NFL came in 1997 when he was selected in the second round (56th overall) by the Carolina Panthers, a team that had just come into existence two years prior. The team’s newness, in addition to Minter’s life spent mostly in the midwest, meant he knew very little about the Panthers, the city of Charlotte or the state of North Carolina on draft day.
“I knew Michael Jordan played there and was from there, but that’s about it,” Minter says with a laugh. “But I was anxious to get there and see what it was like. And nervous … very nervous. I had a lot of different feelings heading there.”
Of all the things that could have an early impact on Minter’s NFL career, what he remembers most about North Carolina early on were the trees. And the hills. Coming from the flatlands of Nebraska and Oklahoma, Minter said he’d never seen so many trees.
“It was weird, but I was in awe,” Minter says. “It’s something I’ll always remember. I just couldn’t believe how many there were and how nice it was.”
Apparently, it was a nice thing to focus on. Just six games into his rookie season, Minter became the Panthers’ starting safety, a title he would hold for the next 10 seasons. He ended his career as the Panthers’ all-time leading tackler (790), and he currently stands third in all-time interceptions with 15 (four of which he returned for touchdowns, which is still a team record). His name is routinely mentioned when all-time Panther squads are announced, and Minter’s charity work in Charlotte during his playing days has also made him a fan and community favorite over the years.
“One of my goals coming into the league was to play for one football team,” says Minter. “To play that long in the NFL for one team, you have to be consistent, you have to be a little lucky and you have to be loyal. I fell in love with Charlotte and North Carolina. I had opportunities to play elsewhere, but this was it for me. I knew it all along.”
Retirement in his mid-30s meant a crossroads for Minter, who dabbled with politics and invested in and started a handful of businesses in those first few years post-NFL. One thing was certain … he was not going to become a football coach.
“I just didn’t want to be that guy,” he says. “I was running away from what I knew I was called to do. Politics, nonprofits, businesses, public speaking … those are the routes I chose to go.”
But in 2008, a friend of his who served as athletic director for First Assembly Christian Academy near Charlotte asked Minter if he’d consider becoming the head of football operations. Minter accepted, telling himself it was just as much about business as it was football (plus it had nothing to do with coaching); but soon after his hiring, FACA’s coach resigned. That year, Minter took over as coach.
“I took the job, and of course, I immediately fell in love with it,” he says. “I knew I would, but at that time, like I said, I didn’t want to be that guy.”
In three years, Minter posted a 35-4 combined record at FACA and took his team to two state championships. He left the high school level to become special teams coordinator at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte. Again, he left his mark. In 2010, JCSU was ranked 137th in the nation in punt return average, and after one year with Minter, it was ranked fifth nationally.
That one year led to a spot on Coach Gill’s staff as special teams coordinator at Liberty University. At Liberty, Minter coached three athletes to all-Big South special teams selections.
But even before he joined Liberty, Minter was hoping a head coaching job would be in his near future. At Johnson C. Smith, he set a goal of being a head coach in five years. On the day he accepted the job at Campbell, he’d done it in three.
“When I got the call, I was ready,” Minter says. “I remember walking out onto the field with five weeks left at Liberty and knowing in my heart I was ready. Five weeks later, Campbell called.”
‘I MIGHT HIT SOMEBODY’
Coaching was in the spotlight of this year’s Super Bowl with Jim and John Harbaugh becoming the first brothers to ever face each other as head coaches in the big game.
Watching Jim Harbaugh on the sidelines for the San Francisco 49ers was inspiring for Minter for a different reason. Just nine years ago — months after Minter’s Super Bowl — Harbaugh was named head football coach at the University of San Diego. USD, like Campbell, is a member of the Pioneer Football League. In Harbaugh’s first season at USD, he went 7-4. The following season, the Toreros were 11-1 and Pioneer League champions. They followed up in 2006 with another 11-1 record and another PL title.
Like Minter, Harbaugh had a successful career in the NFL as a player. Also like Minter, he spent a few seasons as an assistant coach after his retirement before landing at USD. That job led to the top spot at Stanford; and four seasons later, Harbaugh was in the NFL.
“It gets me excited,” Minter says. “You’re watching the guy coach in the Super Bowl, and guess what? He started in the Pioneer League. Not a ton of people know what the Pioneer League is … but I think it’s a great league. When I tell people about Harbaugh, they get it. His story definitely gives you hope that you can get it done from anywhere.”
Campbell’s first game in 2013 will hold a lot of meaning for Minter, and not just because it’s his first as a head coach. On Aug. 31, Campbell University will travel to UNC-Charlotte for that football program’s first-ever game. It’s a program that Minter was a big ambassador for and a program that seriously considered Minter for head coach before it instead went with Brad Lambert. Charlotte will spend its first two seasons in the FCS with Campbell before moving to the FBS with larger programs in 2015.
Minter’s emotions — his first game with Campbell against a program he helped launch in the city where he spent his entire NFL career — will be high on that last Saturday of August this year.
“I might hit somebody,” Minter says excitedly, fists tapping the table in front of him. “They may have to get me off the sidelines or give me a helmet. Even put me in the press box. I’m going to be excited … it’ll be a big game for us. It’s going to be a bit surreal for me on the other sideline, but I’m looking forward to it. It’s a day where Campbell can come out against a bigger program and set the tone for things to come. It’s going to be a huge opportunity for us.”
Minter says he’s happy with the way things have turned out, and he can think of no better place to be than Campbell. From the time he was first considered for the job, to the official announcement all the way through Signing Day, Minter says he’s been welcomed to Buies Creek with open arms.
“Campbell pride is just unbelievable,” he says. “Everything I’ve needed since I got here, I’ve had. And if it wasn’t there, they got it for me. The support here is great, and the enthusiasm is even better. Combine all that together, and you have the winning ingredients.”
While his focus will be on football in North Carolina, Minter will keep one eye on Nebraska this year as his son finishes his high school career in Lincoln. Michael Minter Jr., who’s rushed for 2,763 yards and 32 touchdowns in his sophomore and junior seasons, is already a highly touted recruit who, like his dad, hopes to one day play at Nebraska. Younger brother Isaiah Minter will be a junior on the high school football team next year.
Mike Minter says he’s enjoyed going through the recruitment process with his sons, and he’s excited about their futures.
His advice to them?
“Have fun. That’s what’s most important,” he says. “Go where your gut tells you to go. You’ll know … if you go with your gut, you’ll be fine.
“And you never know. Maybe their gut will say Campbell,” he adds with a smile.